Singer, songwriter, guitarist
Rick Nelson was the singer and actor for whom the phrase “teen idol” was coined, according to Kent Demaret in People magazine. Using his family’s television show, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” as a launching pad for his musical career, Nelson had many hit records, including “Poor Little Fool,”’Travelin’ Man,” and “Hello, Mary Lou,” throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s. But despite his wholesome good looks and television star status, most music critics agree that Nelson was more than a manufactured pretty face to be lumped with the likes of Fabian and Frankie Avalon. Demaret quoted rock critic David Hinkley as saying that ’” the deceptively clean-cut kid named Ricky Nelson’ helped ‘smuggle rock and roll into American living rooms,’” and rock historian Greg Shaw as declaring, “Of all the Hollywood teen idols, only one can be said to have any claim to lasting importance—Ricky Nelson.” On the occasion of Nelson’s 1985 death in a plane crash, fellow rock musician John Fogerty (formerly of Creedence Clearwater Revival) offered to David Fricke in Rolling Stone the following tribute: “He was Hollywood, but the records he made were totally legitimate rockabilly, as good as any of the best stuff from [early country-rock recording company] Sun Records.”
Born Eric Hilliard Nelson on May 8, 1940, in Teaneck, New Jersey, Rick got his start in the entertainment field when he first appeared on his parents’ radio program in 1948. His father and mother, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, had had a family show on the radio previous to that, but until 1949 other children had played the parts of Rick and his older brother, David. When “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” moved to television in 1952, the youngest Nelson helped make the program one of the most popular early sitcoms. To the American television audience, “Ricky was the darling gnome next door, wolfing down chocolate malts and diligently minding his p’s and q’s,” according to Fricke. But as Rick grew older, he became interested in the rockabilly music being produced on the Sun Records label by artists like Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. Legend has it that a girlfriend’s enthusiasm for the swivel-hipped rocker Elvis Presley led Nelson to boast that he, too, was going to make a record; at any rate, that was the way the situation was presented on the 1957 “Ozzie and Harriet” episode on which the aspiring singer made his musical debut.
After Nelson performed on national television the first song he recorded—a cover version of rock pioneer Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’” —the single sold a million copies in one week. Following a couple more releases on the Verve label, Nelson signed with Imperial—Domino’s label—and proceeded to turn out hit after hit. Ozzie Nelson, closely involved in his son’s new career, made a point of showcasing most of Rick’s records on
Full name, Eric Hilliard Nelson; born May 8, 1940, in Teaneck, N.J.; died in an airplane crash, December 31, 1985, near De Kalb, Tex.; son of Oswald “Ozzie” George (a musician, screenwriter, director, producer, and actor) and Harriet (a singer and actress; maiden name, Hilliard) Nelson; married Kristin Harmon (an actress), April 20, 1963 (divorced, 1982); children: Tracy Kristine, Gunnar Eric and Matthew Gray (twins), Sam Hilliard.
Actor on parents’ radio program, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” 1948-52, and on television version of the show, 1952-66; recording artist and concert performer, 1957-85; actor in feature films, including The Story of Three Lovers, The Wackiest Ship in the Army, and Rio Bravo.
the television series. In effect, as Demaret pointed out, the promotion tactic made Rick Nelson “the first rock-video star.” “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” ran until 1966; by the time it went off the air Nelson had earned at least nine gold records and sold over thirty-five million copies of his hits. Some of the most memorable of these are 1957’s “Be-Bop Baby” and “Stood Up,” 1958’s “Lonesome Town,” 1959’s “Never Be Anyone Else But You” and “It’s Late,” 1962’s “It’s Up to You” and the autobiographical “Teenage Idol,” and 1963’s “Fools Rush In.”
By the end of his family’s television show, Nelson, like many other American rock and roll artists who began their careers in the 1950s, found his popularity being eclipsed by British acts like the Beatles. No longer making hit records and out of an acting job, he decided to pursue his longtime interest in country music. Nelson made a few country albums and scored a minor chart hit with the song “You Just Can’t Quit.” Then he heard folk singer Bob Dylan’s album excursion into country, Nashville Skyline, and was inspired to form a country-rock group, the Stone Canyon Band. With them, Nelson released Rudy the Fifth in 1969 and scored another minor hit with a remake of Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me.” Though Nelson himself did not make a major impact with the music he played during this period, the work was a major influence on later rock groups such as the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac.
Nelson’s last and best-selling hit record was the result of an unpleasant experience for him. In 1971 he was invited to play an oldies concert in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. In this period of his life Nelson usually scorned nostalgic celebrations of the early rock and roll that brought him success, but the prestige attached to a Madison Square Garden performance overcame his reluctance. Though he played a few old favorites, he interspersed new material among them, and was booed by the audience. Deeply hurt, Nelson protested his treatment in his 1972 single, “Garden Party.” As quoted by Fricke, the song contained the disdainful lines: “If you gotta play at garden parties/1 wish you a lotta luck/But if memories were all I sang/I’d rather drive a truck.” Ironically, the promoter of the Madison Square Garden concert, Richard Nader, told Fricke that Nelson had misinterpreted the crowd’s reaction: “Coincidental … in the top tier there were some rowdies. The cops were moving them out, and the people were booing the cops…. Rick thought the booing was for him.”
“Nelson had apparently come to terms with his past,” according to Michael Goldberg in Rolling Stone, and was performing in rock and roll revival concerts prior to his death. His last performance was at a friend’s night club in Guntersville, Alabama, and he was en route to another concert in Dallas, Texas, when his private plane crashed near De Kalb, Texas, due to a heater fire.
Major single releases
“I’m Walkin’,” Verve, 1957.
“A Teenager’s Romance,” Verve, 1957.
“You’re My One and Only Love,” Verve, 1957.
“Be-Bop Baby,” Imperial, 1957.
“Have I told You Lately That I Love You?” Imperial, 1957.
“Stood Up,” Imperial, 1957.
“Waitin’ In School,” Imperial, 1957.
“My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It,” Imperial, 1958.
“Believe What You Say,” Imperial, 1958.
“Poor Little Fool,” Imperial, 1958.
“I Got a Feeling,” Imperial, 1958.
“Lonesome Town,” Imperial, 1958.
“Never Be Anyone Else But You,” Imperial, 1959.
“It’s Late,” Imperial, 1959.
“Just a Little Too Much,” Imperial, 1959.
“Sweeter Than You,” Imperial, 1959.
“I Wanna Be Loved,” Imperial, 1959.
“Mighty Good,” Imperial, 1959.
“Young Emotions,” Imperial, 1960.
“I’m Not Afraid,” Imperial, 1960.
“Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby,” Imperial, 1960.
“You Are the Only One,” Imperial, 1961.
“Travelin’ Man,” Imperial, 1961.
“Hello, Mary Lou,” Imperial, 1961.
“A Wonder Like You,” Imperial, 1961.
“Everlovin’,” Imperial, 1961.
“Young World,” Imperial, 1962.
“Teenage Idol,” Imperial, 1962.
“It’s Up to You,” Imperial, 1962.
“That’s’All,” Imperial, 1963.
“Old Enough to Love,” Imperial, 1963.
“Today’s Teardrops,” Imperial, 1963.
“You Don’t Love Me Any More,” Decca, 1963.
“I Got a Woman,” Decca, 1963.
“String Along,” Decca, 1963.
“Fools Rush In,” Decca, 1963.
“For You,” Decca, 1963.
“Congratulations,” Imperial, 1964.
“The Very Thought of You,” Decca, 1964.
“There’s Nothing I Can Say,” Decca, 1964.
“A Happy Guy,” Decca, 1964.
“Mean Old World,” Decca, 1965.
“You Just Can’t Quit,” Decca, 1967.
“She Belongs to Me,” Decca, 1969.
“Easy to Be Free,” Decca, 1970.
“Garden Party,” MCA, 1972.
“Palace Guard,” MCA, 1973.
For You, Decca, 1963.
Every Thought of You, Decca, 1964.
Spotlight on Rick, Decca, 1965.
Best Always, Decca, 1965.
Love and Kisses, Decca, 1966.
Bright Lights, Decca, 1966.
Country Fever, Decca, 1967.
Another Side of Rick, Decca, 1968.
Rudy the Fifth, Decca, 1969.
Garden Party, MCA, 1972.
All My Best, 1985.
Newsweek, January 13, 1986.
People, January 20, 1986.
Rolling Stone, February 13, 1986.
Time, January 13, 1986.
Eric Hilliard Nelson (1940-1985), known as "Rick"or "Ricky," was a popular singer, actor, and song-writer in the late 1950s and early 1960s. With 40 records reaching the charts from 1957 to 1963, Nelson became the nation's first teenage idol created by regular appearances on television.
Music and acting were an important part of the family into which Nelson was born on May 8, 1940. His paternal grandfather was an amateur singer and dancer and his paternal grandmother played rag-time piano. On the other side of the family, both his maternal grandparents were itinerant actors. Nelson's parents were also involved in the entertainment industry. His father, Oswald or "Ozzie" Nelson, was a well-known bandleader and his mother, Harriet (Hilliard) Nelson was an actress and singer. Although his mother temporarily gave up her career to care for Nelson and his older brother David, both Ozzie and Harriet could not deny their desire to perform. Consequently, after living briefly in Teaneck, New Jersey, the Nelsons moved to California to pursue their careers in entertainment. Initially the young Nelson remained in New Jersey and was cared for by his grandmother, Ethel Nelson. He joined his family in California in 1942.
The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet
Arriving in Hollywood, Ozzie and Harriet secured a contract with NBC to appear on Red Skelton's The Raleigh Cigarette Show. Proving themselves a popular act, NBC offered them their own radio show in 1944 after Skelton was drafted into military service, which brought The Raleigh Cigarette Show to an end. From its inception, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was based on the wholesome, good-natured humor that developed out of life with the Nelsons. At first child actors played the parts of David and Ricky, but by 1949, the brothers took their places in front of the microphones and became a part of the family radio show. Nelson, a handsome boy with blonde hair and blue eyes, was not as extroverted as his brother David, but played the part of the kid brother well, and the family radio show grew in popularity.
In the early 1950s television came on the scene as the new media outlet for entertainment. Ozzie tested the waters with the feature-length comedy film Here Come the Nelsons, in which Ricky is kidnapped by bumbling robbers. With the success of the film, Ozzie decided to move The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet to television, airing the first show on October 3, 1952. Continuing to revolve around the idealistic all-American family, the scripts focused on the domestic difficulties of being a family. Problems were always sufficiently resolved within one episode. The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet joined Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver as the first popular comedies of the new television age.
Nelson attended Brancroft Junior High. He played tennis, took drum lessons, played the piano, and joined the school band as a clarinet player. Although he received some of his high school education at Hollywood High School, he spent the majority of his teenage years under the tutelage of studio tutor Randolph Van Scoyk. Billed on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet as "the irrepressible Ricky," off-camera the young Nelson loved girls, cars, sports, and, most of all, rock and roll. By the time he was 15 years old, he was attending the Saturday night performances of the television show Town Hall Party, featuring Tex Ritter, Merle Travis, and Joe Maphis. He also came under the influence of Elvis Presley, along with such rockabilly musicians as Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison. When he was 17, he acquired a Martin D-35 guitar and began rehearsing with a band.
Became a Teen Idol
Nelson, handsome with a snide grin that appeared often in photos, was destined to become one of the first teenage idols created by television. He launched his musical career in 1957 when his father included a two-minute musical segment at the end of an episode that featured Nelson as an amateur performer at a high school dance. He introduced the television audience to his musical talents with his rendition of Fats Domino's classic hit "I'm Walkin'." The segment, which was installed as a regular feature of the show, became so popular that Nelson began looking to a full-time music career. Nelson's weekly performance met the approval of parents who had watched Nelson grow up in their living rooms into a clean-cut, respectful young man and the ideal American teenager. Younger viewers were drawn to Nelson's gritty sound and good looks.
With ready access to the television audience, Nelson became an incredible musical success. His first release, "I'm Walkin"' with "A Teenage Romance" on the B-side, sold in excess of 1 million copies in the first day of its release. For a period of several years, with his father watching over his career and negotiating contracts for his son, it seemed everything Nelson touched turned to gold. Over the course of the next six years, he put over 40 songs on the charts, including seven consecutive top-ten hits within a two-year span. The release of "Travelin' Man" with "Hello, Mary Lou" on the flip side rose to number one on the charts and sold over 5 million copies. Other hits released between 1957 and 1963 include "Poor Little Fool," "Lonesome Town," "Stood Up," "Waitin' in School," "It's Late," "Everlovin'," "It's Up to You," "I Got a Feeling," "Never Be Anyone Else but You," and "Teenage Idol." Due to his mass appeal created by television, Nelson was instantly able to draw large audiences to his concerts when he began the tour circuit in his teens. His first show was at the Ohio State Fair before 20,000 fans. By 1963 Nelson had sold over 35 million records.
Along with his musical career and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Nelson also appeared in several movies. In 1953 he was featured in The Story of Three Loves along with Ethel Barrymore and Leslie Caron. In 1959, he appeared in the classic John Wayne western Rio Bravo, playing the part of a young ranch hand who attempts to find his boss's murderer. The following year he landed a part in the comedy The Wackiest Ship in the Army, starring Jack Lemon.
By 1963, it was apparent that little Ricky was growing up. On April 20, 1963, he married childhood friend Kristin Harmon, daughter of Tom Harmon, a football player, and Elyse Knox, an actress. With The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet still running, the two were included in the script as newlyweds. When the show finally ended its 14-year run in 1966, Nelson was 26 years old. By this time, he preferred to be called Rick rather than Ricky, but he found his image as "the irrepressible Ricky" difficult to shed. By the mid-1960s, the Beatles had arrived on the music scene and revolutionized the world of rock and roll. Unfortunately for Nelson, his days as a teenage idol were quickly coming to a close. Like his music, Nelson's popularity as an actor also waned. He made one more movie in 1965, Love and Kisses, costarring with his wife. He tried musical theater, including appearing on stage in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. He also worked in television, acting on such shows as Malibu U, Owen Marshall, and Counselor at Law.
Musically, Nelson continued to produce albums in hopes of regaining his audience. Turning to country, he released two albums, Country Fever and Bright Lights and Country Music, but neither of the releases did well in sales.
In the late 1960s, Nelson toured the Far East, where he tried his hand at a blend of country, rock, and blues. Upon his return, he formed a new group, the Stone Canyon Band, to develop this new style of music. After attaining some success in 1969 with a remake of Bob Dylan's "She Belongs to Me," the following year Nelson released the album Rick Nelson in Concert, a mix of some of his previously popular songs and some Dyan tunes. Despite excellent reviews, the release did not sell well.
"Garden Party" is Released
The origin of Nelson's final popular success, his 1972 single "Garden Party," was a rock and roll revival at Madison Square Garden. According to Nelson, who related the story to Jas Obrecht in a 1981 interview in Guitar Player magazine, the show's promoter spent four years trying to convince Nelson to participate in the show. Having just formed the Stone Canyon Band, Nelson finally agreed to do the show in order to showcase his new album Rudy the Fifth. . He told Obrecht, "I just thought, 'Okay, I've never played Madison Square Garden,' and I started thinking of reasons why I should do it. I never quite convinced myself, really. I felt very out of place being there that night." Expecting to hear the old favorite songs from the peak of Nelson's career, some of the crowd began to boo as Nelson played his new county-rock fusion. Although some later suggested the booing was aimed at rowdy individuals in the crowd, Nelson considered the appearance a disaster. In response, he wrote the song "Garden Party," which dealt with his unfavorable reception. Ironically, the song became a popular success, selling over 1 million copies.
"Garden Party" proved to be Nelson's last commercial success. He continued to tour extensively for the remainder of his life, booking up to 200 shows a year. After several periods of separation followed by attempts at reconciliation during the late 1970s, Nelson's marriage to Harmon came to an end in December 1982, followed by two years of bitter divorce proceedings. The couple had four children, Tracy, twins Matthew and Gunnar, and Sam. Nelson began a relationship with model Helen Blair, and the two were engaged in 1984.
A Tragic End
In the summer of 1985 Nelson recorded a Sun Records reunion album that featured many of the artists he had first admired in his youth, including Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash. During the summer and fall he toured extensively, playing the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles and then traveling to Australia and Great Britain. Before the end of the year, Nelson's sons, Matthew and Gunnar, who were struggling to deal with their mother's alcoholism, moved in with Nelson and Blair. The boys' time with their father proved to be short. On New Year's Eve Nelson, accompanied by Blair and the Stone Canyon Band, was completing a short after-Christmas tour. On route to a New Year's Eve show at a Dallas hotel, having completed a gig the day before in Guntersville, Alabama, Nelson's private plane crash landed in a field outside DeKalb, Texas. The plane smashed into some trees and, although the pilot and co-pilot managed to escape, Nelson, Blair, and all five members of the band were killed by the fire that consumed the aircraft.
After Nelson's memorial service, which was attended by more than one thousand people, rumors began to circulate regarding the cause of the fire aboard the 1944 DC-3. Authorities considered several sources, including Nelson and the band members free-basing cocaine. Although toxicology reports showed trace amounts of cocaine in Nelson and other members of the band, the National Transportation Board in May 1987 found the evidence insufficient and reported that a faulty cabin heater or an electrical short was the most probable cause.
Despite his failure to regain the fame of his early career, Nelson held a unique place in American pop culture that he never completely lost. He was awarded a Grammy posthumously in 1986 for his performance on the Sun Records reunion. The following year he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His twin sons, Matthew and Gunnar, inspired by their father, became musicians in their own right. According to Erik Meers and Ken Baker in People Weekly, "Asked by a fan at the Alameda Fair about his tattoo, Gunnar rolls up his right sleeve and reveals a halo-crowned adult angel floating above two tiny twin angles. 'He's like our guardian,' he says, 'looking over our shoulders."' All four of Nelson's children collaborated to produce a four-CD box set of their father's music. The set, entitled Legacy, was released at the end of 2000, coinciding with the fifteenth anniversary of Nelson's death.
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